This Week's Torah Portion: The Most Important Mitzvah (Part 21)

Dëvar Torah — Parashath Ki Thissa’ (Exodus XXX, 11-XXXIV, 35)

As we noted a few weeks ago, this week’s parasha begins with the mitzva (“commandment”) of machatzith hasheqel. This donation of half a sheqel of silver was intended for the adanim, the pedestals of silver into which the posts of the Mishkan were fitted. There were fifty such posts and two adanim per post, for a total of one hundred adanim.

The donation of the half-sheqel is unusual for its “regressive” character, i.e. it is equally incumbent upon rich and poor: “The rich may not increase and the poor may not decrease from the half-sheqel” (XXX, 14), whereas all the other donations are on the basis of “from each man, who will donate according to his heart” (XXV, 2).

It is a fair and natural question to ask why this donation should be different, and further, why the Torah should have fixed the amount at half a sheqel and not some other amount.

To seek an answer, let us begin with a verse from the prophet Ezekiel:

You, son of man, tell the House of Israel about the House, and they will be shamed by their sins (XLVIII, 10).

The commentators explain that Ezekiel is being told to inform Israel that they are the “House” — the Temple — and that the Temple depends upon them, i.e. that all of the details of the Temple’s design are intended to point to Israel’s conduct according to the instructions of the Torah (cf. the Radaq, Mëtzudath David, and especially the Malbim on the above passage).

In the same connection, we can cite the great 14th century Spanish sage known as Rabbénu Bachya ben Asher (some pronounce his name Bëchayé), who writes:

And from the verse “and make for Me a sanctuary” (Exodus XXV, 8) you will find 248 actions in the making of the Mishkan and its utensils which correspond one-to-one with the 248 mitzvoth ‘asé (“affirmative commandments”) which are in the Torah.

This requires a little explanation. Of the 613 mitzvoth found in the Torah, 365 are negative, i.e., they specify things one must refrain from doing, and 248 are positive, i.e. specify things one must do. These are the mitzvoth ‘asé. The Mishkan, then, and later the Temple, in Rabbénu Bachya’s conception, relates positively to the steps men can take to ensure G-d’s presence in the world.

The Talmud (Makkoth 24a) tells us of the mitzvoth:

 613 mitzvoth were told to Moshe at Sinai. David came and set them on the basis of eleven … Isaiah came and set them on the basis of six … Micha came and built them on three … Isaiah returned and set them on a foundation of two … Habakkuk came and set them upon the basis of one, as it is said: “And a tzaddiq (a just, righteous man) will live by his faith” (III, 4).

Thus, the passage concludes that the absolute basis of the Torah and its mitzvoth is simple faith in G-d, in His Torah, and in its faithful transmission.

The simple truth, evident to anyone with eyes to see, is that even though the mitzvoth are in effect upon all of Israel, there are many levels of fulfillment. We have, thank G-d, towering geniuses capable of studying Torah very deeply and profoundly, and we have simple people for whom learning a few verses in the weekly parasha is a challenge and an accomplishment. One can perform any mitzvah with awesomely deep and mystical intentions, or as a simple command of the Master of the Universe. And there are many steps in between. The one thing which is absolutely equal for everyone, the foundation of Torah and the Divine service it mandates, is emuna pëshuta, simple faith.

For this reason the half-sheqel of silver was donated for the adanim, the bases into which the beams of the Mishkan were set, to teach us that the basis of the mitzvoth which the Mishkan symbolizes is emuna. Every ben Yisra’él contributes equally, because emuna pëshuta was — and is — incumbent equally on us all.

But why half a sheqel?

In the Yërushalmi Shëqalim (III, 3) there is an opinion that, since the bënei Yisra’él had sinned with the Golden Calf by half a day, they had to pay half a sheqel. Though the mitzva of machatzith hasheqel precedes the account of the Golden Calf in our parasha (XXXII, 1-35), it was in fact given after the incident.

Rashi, basing himself on Shabbath 89a, explains that Moshe had given an assurance that at the end of forty days he would return within six hours, i.e. before noon. But the people miscalculated, counting the day Moshe ascended Mt Sinai as the first of the forty days, whereas Moshe had intended the count to begin with the first full day. Thus, when Moshe failed to show himself by noon of what was actually the thirty-ninth day, the people panicked and, led by the ‘Erev rav (the mixed multitude of others who had accompanied Israel out of Egypt), demanded a “god,” an elohim, to replace Moshe. This is what the Talmud means when it says that they sinned by half a day.

Their sin lay not in the misunderstanding, but in the panic. Many of the bënei Yisra’él had not yet internalized the true nature of the relationship into which they had entered with G-d. This is evident from the fact that, despite having heard with their own ears — “I am Ha-Shem your G-d Who took you out of the land of Egypt … ” (Exodus XX, 2) — they nevertheless characterized Moshe in their panic as “the man who brought us out of Egypt.”

They lacked the faith and trust in G-d that He would not abandon them in the middle of the desert. Without the go-between, the Divine spokesman, they felt helpless.

This is what they meant when they asked for an elohim (cf. also Exodus IV, 1 and VII, 1 for similar uses of the word). Without a replacement for Moshe, they were lost.

So the corrective for this lack of faith is the half-sheqel. Maintenance of emuna in this world requires the recognition that we never know the whole story. We see everyday cases which seem to us patent injustice: innocent people who suffer random violence, children born into the world sick and maimed, wretched poverty beside conspicuous wealth. We do not understand what is happening, because we are not allowed to see the whole story, but only half of it.

This is why emuna is half a sheqel, and not the whole thing. We must have faith that, ultimately, there is justice, that G-d is in fact running His world. That part which we are able to correct, we must correct; what we cannot correct must be endured in good faith. To distinguish between the two requires wisdom.

The connection between the adanim, emuna, and the Golden Calf is brought home by two other observations. As we learned in parashath Tëruma (Exodus XXVI, 15-25), the Mishkan had fifty posts, and under each as a base were two adanim. The Ramban is of the opinion that the purpose of this doubling was to remind Israel of the two utterances at Sinai — “I am Ha-Shem”; and “you will have no other elohim” (ibid., XX, 2-3) — so that they would never be violated again.

Rabbi Ya‘aqov ben Asher, the Ba‘al haTurim, sees a different point. He sees in the one hundred adanim a reminder of the one hundred bërachoth (“blessings”) one is required to make every day (cf. Mënachoth 43b). The purpose of this rabbinic ordinance is to ensure that emuna is firmly rooted each and every day in the Jewish soul, that nothing, big or small, is done in this world save by the will of the Master of the Universe.